Gaming Today Interviews Tabula Rasa’s Community Manager, April Burba
Me, I’m not much into MMOs. But I have been saying for awhile that Tabula Rasa looks like it could be the one to break me into the genre. After sitting down with April Burba, the community manager for the game, for a few minutes at PAX last week, I’m even more convinced that this game will change the traditional formula for MMOs. I also got a chance to get some hand-on time with the game, which only confirmed this even more. The game plays like a fusion of so many genres in one that calling it an MMORPG only covers part of the gameplay. You can read the full interview after the break.
GT: So what can you tell you tell me about Tabula Rasa?
Well, it’s a near-future, science fiction, massively multiplayer, online action role-playing game. The general backstory is that an evil alien race known as the Bane has attacked the Earth, and I’m sorry to say that we didn’t get to keep the Earth. So some of us who are lucky have escaped onto other planets, and we have joined with other races in an effort to try and keep the Bane from taking over the entire galaxy.
GT: So how did your team approach this project? Did you start with the story and then work on gameplay or the other way around?
The name “Tabula Rasa” actually means “blank slate” in latin and that was kind of the approach that the initial development team really took: Richard [Garriot], Starr [Long], and these guys were like, “Let’s start over.” The genre has kind of been building on certain principles since the UO [Ultima Online] era. UO, Everquest: they kind of built on really the same ideas. Let’s start over; let’s think about what we like from those games and what we don’t like from those games and let’s try to build something new. So the original idea was less about fiction and more about gameplay dynamics and design and picking out unique features to talk about. What do we hate about these games? We hate all the travel time; we hate running everywhere. We hate the fact that you just click on a bad guy and then you’re actually clicking on your UI [user interface] the entire time; we hate that. And so it was all about how can we change that? And once those decisions were made, there were some systems that were designed and then it was like, “Okay, now let’s go for the story and build up the rest.”
GT: Now, me personally, I’ve never played an MMO. But having said that, I am looking forward to breaking into them with this one. So would this be one for people new to the genre to approach?
I think this is a great game for people that are new to the genre, and the reason I say that is because — just what I said — the things we hate about other MMOs are things that we’re really trying to improve here. This game has such a faster pace of action; if you are a fan of shooter type games, you are really going to be a fan of Tabula Rasa. It is really that fast-paced: run and gun, going out and shooting a bunch of bad guys and blowing stuff up and having a good time that you’re actually doing. It’s not dwarves, it’s not elves. It’s humans and aliens; bad guys and shooting stuff.
GT: You mentioned the travel time, so how did you cut that down?
One of the ways we tried to cut down the travel time is we have a waypoint teleporting system. We wanted people to explore the world. We think that’s important, especially for people who like to explore a lot; we want to reward that. And so throughout the entire world, we’ve placed these teleporters. So as you’re exploring the world, you’ll find one, you’ll walk across it, and you’ll add it to your list. Then every time you find one of those, you can go onto a teleporter and go to any of the destinations you’ve already been at any time. No cost, instant travel, fast fast fast. So you hit a couple places, you pick up a bunch of missions, you can go out and run all the missions. Then you need to turn them all back in, so you hit one spot with a teleporter and then boom boom boom, turn all your missions in, grab all your stuff, and then get back out into the action.
GT: Speaking of action, what sort of changes did you make to the combat model as opposed to other MMOs?
Well, a traditional MMO combat model is that I’m going use my mouse pointer to click on the bad guy to target him or maybe use TAB or something. And then I’m going to click the icons in my icon tray that represent powers or abilities or weapons, and I’m going to watch those as I click. And we’re going to do that until one of us dies. in Tabula Rasa, we actually built the UI so you’re looking through your weapon reticle, and you’re moving the camera with your mouse; so your head is up and looking at the game. You’re left mouse fires your weapon, your right mouse fires your abilities; so you’re not even looking at the icons on the screen, you’re looking at the action, and its a much faster pace. It’s none of this standing there and clicking buttons. You’re moving around, trying to get a tactical advantage. You can use cover, you can crouch, and it’s a much more traditional shooter model than it is an MMO model.
GT: What sort of elements did you put in to have people work together?
We do have a squad-based system with voice chat built into the game. So it makes it easy to hook up with people and talk while you’re looking around and all that stuff. The classes can really work together to do certain things. You’ve got some of your traditional flavors of classes; like there’s a medic-type class, and there’s more of the tank type, and stuff like that. They work together really well as a team. And we kind of designed some of the spaces as our giant storytelling area that play more like a single-person console game — with the story elements and how interactive you are with your environment. It’s a more descriptive kind of a situation inside those spaces, and those spaces are a lot of fun to go into with other people. We kind of built the difficulty around a group-based situation. Now if you wanted to solo that you could, but you just want to be a couple levels higher. We also have Clan vs. Clan PVP, so we do have a clan system for that larger social aspect. And we’re working on building some pretty cool community tools for people; not only for us to use in-game for events and that kind of thing, but also for players to use to make their own events
GT: I know the game’s not out yet, but do you already have plans to expand this universe?
We do. There’s a lot of ways we could go for expansion-type content. We haven’t really announced anything yet, but there have been a lot of different things that people have asked for that we’re like, “In an expansion, in an expansion.” People want to drive the mechs — there are giant mechs in the game that have jet packs on them. People are like, “Ooh!” and we’re like, “In an expansion.” We can add planets, we can add levels, we can add classes, we can add new races; there are no bounds. And that’s the great thing about an MMO is it’s just going to get better; there’s just going to be more stuff. I mean, I look at city of heroes three years after it launched, and the difference between the day it launched and now? Night and day.
GT: So is there anything else you think people should know?
Well, I will say that our pre-order box is out on store shelves, so you can pick that up. It actually does get you into the beta so if you’re interested in getting into the beta that’s a way you can get in. We’re in closed beta right now, but you can get in by getting a pre-order if you’re over 18. And we just announced the Collector’s Edition and all the stuff that’s in that box, so you can pre-order that as well. So yeah, we’re getting pretty close. We’re going to release in the fall.